Lexington opera fans will get see Giacomo Puccini's 1896 masterpiece La Bohème this weekend in a theater that's older than the opera but has had a 21st-century makeover.
The University of Kentucky Opera Theatre's Bohème will be the first performances in the Opera House after a $2 million renovation that brings the theater up to 2008 standards for audiences and performers.
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"We needed to," said Opera House general manager Luanne Franklin during a tour of the renovations, "because that was what was necessary to keep the historic venue vital for today's industry."
The last time the Opera House, which opened in 1887, was renovated was in the mid-1970s, when it was reopened after years of being closed and at one point slated for demolition.
In June, the theater shut for the renovation that brought sweeping changes in the theater and backstage.
Returning Opera House visitors will immediately notice fresh dashes of paint and upholstery in the lobby and elsewhere, but the main attraction will be plush, new seats to replace the torturous 19- and 20-inch-wide models from the '70s that used to populate the theater's floor and two balconies.
"We only have a few 19-inch seats now," Franklin said. "Most are 20, 21, and we even have some 22- and 23-inch seats scattered around."
The theater also took out a row of seats in the orchestra section to expand leg room. That move reduced the number of seats slightly, down to 866 from 928 permanent seats, but there are still luxury boxes flanking the stage and additional portable seating that can be used when space is available.
Another issue for patrons had been aisle safety. Passages, including perilous ascents to balcony seating, were often dark. Now, there are guide lights on every aisle seat and each stair step.
There's also something for their ears.
The Opera House has had some notorious sonic dead zones, including orchestra seating under the first balcony and some spots in the upper levels. The renovation included a new sound system, with movable ceiling speakers and custom acoustics.
"I was moving around when they were doing tests, and it sounded amazing," Franklin said.
The original funding for the renovation came from a $500,000 grant from the Lucille Little Foundation, which the Opera House Fund sought to double through a fund-raising campaign.
"We pretty much did," Franklin said, noting that additional expenses are being paid through the fund. The Opera House Fund is a not-for-profit organization that oversees an endowment that supports capital improvements to the facility and programming.
A capital campaign is continuing for the renovation. Franklin hopes that now that patrons can see the changes to the Opera House, they might want to donate to get in on some perks like engraved bricks on the patio leading up to the front doors and nameplates on seat backs.
The renovations don't just benefit the audience.
Performers at the Opera House will be greeted with a completely new backstage area, including deluxe "star" dressing rooms and chorus dressing rooms with ample seating and showers and closed-circuit televisions so performers can see what is happening on stage.
Franklin said audiences might see benefits from these, too.
"For negotiations for Broadway contracts, particularly with some of the celebrities that come, Equity requires certain dressing room standards which we could not meet," Franklin said, referring to the stage actors union. "Now, we will be able to provide what is expected for a lot of these contracts."
She stopped short of promising more shows with marquee leads but said it will put them in a much better position to attract those shows.
"I have been in star dressing rooms in New York that weren't this nice," Franklin said. "It makes it much more appealing for a company for us to be able to provide everything they are looking for."
The renovation has also brought about other perks, including the replacement of dry-rotted curtains.
Digging for a new staircase from the chorus dressing rooms to stage right revealed a portion of the original foundation's wall. Upstairs, on the third floor, the lobby has been reconfigured into a large room with wood floors that can be used for anything from rehearsals to parties.
One thing Franklin and her staff have not been able to work out is a date for a true grand opening celebration. They held off patrons as late as they could to complete the makeover, and now, most weekends are booked for the 2009-09 season, Franklin said.
Though a grand opening might be delayed, she's thrilled to get the theater open again.
"With all of the changes, it's going to take us six to eight months to learn what we can do," Franklin said. "It's really opened some doors to us for things we haven't been able to offer, for both our patrons and our clients."